Far-Too-Early 2012 ACC Power Rankings (February 7)

Can Jimbo Fisher and Florida State Translate a National Signing Day Victory Into an ACC Title?

With National Signing Day behind us, we take our first look at how the ACC‘s teams appear to stack up heading into the 2012 season. Taken into account are returning starters, 2012 schedule and instant freshman contributors from the recent recruiting class. This will be revised monthly throughout the offseason.

1. Florida State Seminoles (2011 record: 9-4): For a team that appeared awfully talented in 2011, the ‘Noles look even more dangerous in 2012. Quarterback EJ Manuel is healthy and understands this squad has something to prove, while what’s arguably the nation’s top recruiting class may get some opportunities on both sides of the ball should they be needed. While defense was dominant last year, FSU’s offense may be just as noteworthy.

2. Clemson Tigers (2011 record: 10-4): Despite losing defensive end Andre Branch, the Tigers return their three biggest offensive weapons — Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington. That alone should put the Tigers in contention to finish right where they did in 2011; the ACC title game. It’ll be up to their defense, though, to pick up the slack if they want to get past FSU in the Atlantic division.

3. Virginia Tech Hokies (2011 record: 11-3): Continuing to fight off their elite-opponent demons, the Hokies may struggle against their improved conference-mates in 2012. However, with quarterback Logan Thomas back (and likely improved), it’s hard to see how this team can’t ride him and what should be another strong defense to at least nine wins on the year.

4. NC State Wolfpack (2011 record: 8-5): While questions may loom about the receiving corps and running game, senior QB Mike Glennon and an experienced offensive line should be enough to project big things for the ‘Pack. If the defense can generate the type of pressure they managed to late in 2011, look out.

5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2011 record: 8-5): Returning most of their starters, including quarterback Tevin Washington, the triple-option should be as good as ever for the Yellow Jackets offense in 2011. Of course they won’t be as flashy or exciting as some of the teams above them here, remember that this team can (and will) put a flurry of points on the board. Defense be damned. Continue reading

ACC’s Top 25 Players of 2011: No. 8, Andre Branch

Clemson's Andre Branch is Number Eight On Our Countdown of the ACC's Top 25 Players

To recap the 2011 season of ACC football, we’ll be ranking the top 25 players in the conference this year, starting at 25, and heading all the way to the number-one slot. While these rankings can surely be debated, it’s still entertaining to assemble them. And on we go…

No. 8: Andre Branch, DE/Clemson

In a season full of severe negatives for Clemson’s defense, Andre Branch seemed to rise above it all anyway. The senior defensive end, despite constant double-teams, managed 10.5 sacks in his last year as a Tiger — tops in the ACC. His overall tackling numbers were something to behold as well. Branch recorded 77 in total all season, proving his overall prowess at stopping ballcarriers at the point of attack. His most impressive effort, of course, was an 11-tackle day against Virginia Tech back in October. In defeating the Hokies 23-3, Branch also registered four sacks against a mismatched offensive line. While virtually contained in the teams’ second matchup in the conference title game, Branch’s constant attention allowed Clemson to apply consistent pressure and force bad throws for a 38-10 victory. With some pro scouts labeling him an outside linebacker, he’ll either have to slim down (and speed up) to move to the middle of the field or pack on some additional size to remain on the line. Regardless, Branch’s skill set slates him as a prime target for the second round of the NFL Draft. Continue reading

2011 ACC Season Recap: Clemson Tigers

Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd Were Two of the ACC's Most Exciting Players in 2011

Team: Clemson Tigers

W-L: 10-4 (7-2)

Postseason: 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia

Top Offensive Performer: Tajh Boyd, QB

Top Defensive Performer: Andre Branch, DE

After a fiery 8-0 start that saw sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd dominating defenses unlike any ACC signal-caller had done in years, suddenly the wheels came off in shocking fashion. Losses to Georgia Tech, NC State and South Carolina were shocks to the system, and if not for a last-second field-goal against Wake Forest, the Tigers may not have even won the Atlantic Division crown. Nonetheless, the Tigers finished in impressive fashion, polishing off the odds-on favorite Virginia Tech Hokies twice — the second time for the ACC title. With momentum, and some of the league’s best playmakers in Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and standout freshman receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson was ready to cap off one of their best seasons in two decades. Alas, it was not to be. The Tigers choked in epic fashion in the Orange Bowl, and despite scoring 33 points of their own, they were doubled-up by West Virginia. Brutally embarrassing bowl performance aside, Clemson was still among the nation’s best offenses all season, specifically through the air, and averaged nearly 34 points per game. Boyd and Watkins would connect for 12 scores, as both were getting Heisman buzz well through midseason. Continue reading

Discover Orange Bowl Preview: Clemson vs. West Virginia

The High-Powered Offenses of Clemson and West Virginia Face Off in the Discover Orange Bowl

The Clemson Tigers stunned ACC favorites Virginia Tech to earn their first Discover Orange Bowl bid in 20 years. In the other corner, the West Virginia Mountaineers won a three-way tiebreaker to take home the Big East title and the default BCS berth that goes with it. It’ll be a battle of great offenses down in Miami Gardens. We examine who’s most likely to prevail.

Bowl Game: (Discover) Orange Bowl

Location: Miami Gardens, Fla.

First Year: 1935

2012 Participants: Clemson Tigers (10-3) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (9-3)

Last Meeting: 1989, a 27-7 Gator Bowl win by Clemson

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Clemson (previous bowl game: 31-26 loss to USF in 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl)

For much of the 2011 season, the surprising Tigers sported the ACC’s most electrifying offensive attack. With All-ACC quarterback Tajh Boyd at the helm, and star freshman Sammy Watkins catching passes, the team raced out to an 8-0 start, averaging over 40 points per game in that span. Though the team struggled through the year’s final four regular season games (going 1-3), they still managed to recapture their previous magic in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. Propelled by a swarming defensive front and a relentless passing assault, they cruised to a 38-10 victory. And while it was an impressive, unexpected victory, it shouldn’t cloud the obvious flaws in this Tigers team. Continue reading

ACC Top 10 Single-Game Performances of 2011

Who Had the Best Single-Game Performance of an Exciting 2011 ACC Football Season?

Continuing our extensive recap of an entertaining 2011 season of ACC (plus Syracuse and Pittsburgh) football, we move on to the top 10 single-game performances of the 2011 season. These were the best offensive and defensive efforts by one single player, that stood out above all others. As you’d imagine, with so many evenly-matched teams and players this season, no part of this selection was easy. Nonetheless, your top 10 single-game performances. Please feel free to disagree in the comments below.

10. Andre Branch, DE/Clemson (11 tackles, 4.0 sacks @ Virginia Tech): Established early as the class of the ACC this year, Clemson and Virginia Tech’s October clash was supposed to be a very close matchup. What happened instead, however, was a 23-3 blowout — a direct result of the Tigers’ defensive pressure, led by Branch. Seemingly all over the field, the senior defensive end helped hold the Hokies to just 125 passing yards on the day.

9. Sammy Watkins, WR/Clemson (345 all-purpose yards, 3 TD @ Maryland): Watkins and the high-powered Tigers’ offense spend most of the second half of this game mounting an enormous comeback, but don’t blame the deficit on the freshman receiver. One of the nation’s standout first-year players, his highlight reel in this game alone included two big third-quarter receiving TDs, as well as a stunning 89-yard kickoff return to take the lead for good.

8. Dwight Jones, WR/North Carolina (10 catches, 101 yards, 3 TD vs. Duke): Saving his best game of the season for the final regular season match of his career, the senior set season-highs with 10 catches and three touchdowns. While Jones was the Heels’ most impressive offensive weapon all season, it was this performance that really put him into the upper echelon of a talented ACC receiving group.

7. Luke Kuechly, LB/Boston College (23 tackles vs. Duke): Kuechly was a tackling machine for the Eagles in 2011, racking up a grand total of 191 in just 12 games of action. His ultimate reward: the Bronko Nagurski Award, for the nation’s top defensive player. While every game he played was impressive, this one in particular was one of the year’s best tackling performances for any player.

6. Ryan Nassib, QB/Syracuse (24 of 32 passing, 240 total yards, 5 total TD vs. West Virginia): Who knew that this fantastic performance on a Friday night in October would end up being the last hurrah of both Nassib’s and Syracuse’s seasons? In spite of their five-game collapse to close out the slate, this Orange fan will still try to remember their stunning 49-23 win over the Mountaineers most of all. You could occasionally get a glimpse of how much Nassib improved from 2010 to 2011, and this game was an all-out tour-de-force of that growth as a leader on the field.

5. Rolandon Finch, RB/Boston College (243 rushing yards, 2 TD @ Maryland): Finch recorded just 705 yards and three TDs rushing this entire season. So, when looking at his numbers from this late October game versus the Terps, the totals look even more impressive. The Eagles would record 372 yards on the ground that day, to just 32 passing. An embarrassing display for a Maryland defense that expected an easy day against BC’s 112th-ranked offense.

4. Rodney McLeod, CB/Virginia (7 tackles, 3 interceptions @ Maryland): I’m sure you’re sensing a theme with Maryland by now. While McLeod had just four interceptions all season, he managed to pick off three passes in one game against the Terps. The number is currently half of his career total of six. It appears Maryland just has that effect on people.

3. Tajh Boyd, QB/Clemson (30 of 42 passing, 416 total yards, 4 passing TD vs. Auburn): What better way to announce your arrival in the national consciousness than versus the defending BCS champs? After looking shaky the previous Saturday against FCS competition, Boyd and Clemson came out swinging against Auburn and it paid huge dividends. Sure, the SEC still looks down on their southern brethren, but Clemson, behind some scary-good numbers from its sophomore quarterback, at least quieted the scoffing for a day.

2. Tajh Boyd, QB/Clemson (27 of 46 passing, 367 passing yards, 6 total TD vs. North Carolina): The only player to appear on this list twice, Boyd and his performance in this October victory was as a huge resume-booster for the quarterback’s then-budding Heisman trophy campaign. The dominating performance would also double as one of the Tigers’ biggest claims to a top-ten ranking. Much of the damage in this one occurred during a horrifying third-quarter in which Clemson scored 35 points to really stick a dagger in UNC’s hopes.

1. Mike Glennon, QB/NC State (36 of 55 passing, 306 passing yards, 6 total TD vs. Maryland): Who else but the Terps’ defense could’ve given up this performance? Down 41-14 in the third quarter, with a bowl berth on the line, Glennon would account for four touchdowns over the final 20 minutes of the game. The incredible, 27-point comeback to win would be a rubber-stamp on a surprisingly successful Wolfpack season, and an exclamation point on Glennon’s career (limited ’till this point).

ACC Title Game Recap: Clemson over Virginia Tech, 38-10

Tajh Boyd and Clemson Rebounded, and Are Headed to the Orange Bowl

What Happened: On the back of their defense (of all things!), Clemson demolished a favored Virginia Tech team that came in on a seven-game winning streak. After starting 8-0 on the season, the Tigers had lost three of four and were apparently reeling. The Hokies, behind balanced doses of RB David Wilson and QB Logan Thomas, and one of the nation’s top 10 defenses were supposed to continue Clemson’s slide. However, with a creative gameplan utilizing run-blitzes to contain Wilson and steady pressure on Thomas as the game wore on, Clemson effectively immobilized Virginia Tech’s offense.

Who’s to Blame: For those who’d like to assign blame, rather than credit, the onus has to fall on Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer’s staff here. Tech had already faced Clemson this season, and were trounced the first time, 23-3. Back in October, it was the Tigers’ defense that came through to shut down a then-struggling Hokies attack. Even after studying that game tape however, Virginia Tech came out just as sluggish, and were easily pushed around by Clemson’s front four all night. While Thomas did throw for 274 yards, he only completed 22 of 44 passes and had three turnovers. Wilson finished the night with just 32 yards — neither being the type of performance that generates success against a talented squad like the Tigers.

It Was Over When: Clemson’s huge third quarter — reminiscent of their 35-point third against North Carolina back in October — quickly altered, and then effectively ended a game that had previously been tied 10-10. The Tigers’ pressure created mistakes and the offense, behind quarterback Tajh Boyd, took advantage in a hurry. As if the last month never happened, they looked like the exciting, pass-happy squad that roared through its first eight games. From the third quarter on, Clemson just beat Tech physically and mentally — a drubbing even more impressive than these teams’ first matchup this season.

Game Ball Goes To: Tajh Boyd, for starters. With a slump-busting 268 total yards and four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing), he morphed right back into the league’s most dominant offensive force by taking apart the Hokies vaunted D. Throughout the contest, Boyd was efficient, poised and accurate, with a 69 percent completion rate overall on 20 of 29 passing. He ends with regular season with 36 touchdowns and over 3,600 total yards.

Another game ball should also be rewarded to the Clemson defense for holding Virginia Tech to 13 points total over their two meetings this season. They also managed to keep the ACC’s leading rusher, Wilson, in check, which changed the tide of the entire game. Defensive end Andre Branch, and so many others on the Tigers’ defensive unit, silenced a lot of criticism for the time being with their fiery, aggressive efforts from start to finish.

Atlantic Coast Convos All-ACC Team (Defense)

Despite BC's Losing Record, Luke Kuechly Dominated on Defense in 2011

The Atlantic Coast Convos All-ACC Team honors the best players at each defensive position. We’ve provided a list of both first- and second-team selections based on what we’ve observed throughout the season. Feel free to disagree, however, since we did on several of the official ACSMA list.

First Team

Defensive End: Andre Branch, Clemson

Defensive End: James Gayle, Virginia Tech

Defensive Tackle: Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest

Defensive Tackle: Matt Conrath, Virginia

Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Boston College

Linebacker: Sean Spence, Miami (FL)

Linebacker: Julian Burnett, Georgia Tech

Cornerback: David Amerson, NC State

Cornerback: Merrill Noel, Wake Forest

Safety: Matt Daniels, Duke

Safety: Josh Bush, Wake Forest

Punter: Shawn Powell, Florida State

Second Team

Defensive End: Quinton Coples, North Carolina

Defensive End: Brandon Jenkins, Florida State

Defensive Tackle: Joe Vellano, Maryland

Defensive Tackle: Brandon Thompson, Clemson

Linebacker: Terrell Manning, NC State

Linebacker: Zach Brown, North Carolina

Linebacker: Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech

Cornerback: Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech

Cornerback: Chase Minnifield, Virginia

Safety: Antone Exum, Virginia Tech

Safety: Eddie Whitely, Virginia Tech

Punter: Dalton Botts, Miami (FL)

Breakdown by team: Virginia Tech (4), Wake Forest (3), Clemson (2), Florida State (2), Georgia Tech (2), Miami (2), NC State (2), UNC (2), Virginia (2), BC (1), Duke (1), Maryland (1)

Check out the All-ACC Offensive Team, too.